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EU referendum on Ukraine teaches EU negotiators a lesson

14 Oct 2015 - 12:01
Source: Pro-EU demonstration in Kiev, November 27, 2013 / Wikipedia / Evgeny Feldman

The EU-critical movement Geenpeil has succeeded in securing 452,000 signatures – far more than the required 300,000 – for organizing a referendum in The Netherlands. Irrespective of the result of the referendum, conclusions have to be drawn from this major success of Geenpeil.  It seems that this time the lessons should be the same as in 2005 when the Dutch vetoed the Constitution in a referendum: beware of pompous and superfluous rhetoric, whether concerning an EU hymn or hinting at ‘European aspirations’ of Ukraine.  The Netherlands is not particularly EU-critical but can be regarded as a no-nonsense country (Schout and Rood 2013, 1) when it comes to the EU. Useful EU policy stands a chance, but now, with a new law in force that makes it easier to organize referenda, it is clear that EU policies should have substantial added value and be unambiguous in terms of content and language.

The association agreement with Ukraine encompasses a substantial economic section of 300 pages. This economic core of the agreement infuriated Putin and contributed to the occupation of the Crimea. The political introduction to the association agreement is only a few pages but it is this part that provoked much of the chagrin in The Netherlands. Both the Russian and Dutch reactions were profoundly underestimated. Russia prefers a destabilized Ukraine and fears an increase in economic growth in Ukraine resulting from flourishing trade relations with the EU. Yet, there are good reasons for supporting closer economic ties between the EU and Ukraine. With trade liberalization, Ukraine products gain easier access to the EU’s internal market while approximately 50 million Ukrainian consumers are added to the internal market.

The short political section of the agreement that provoked the referendum in The Netherlands is harder to defend. That Russia has little problems with the political part signals that this section of the agreement is not very consequential. By and large, it contains sentences and jargon that bind no one and could have been much shorter as well as clearer. However, it does contain relevant and important intentions related to strengthening democracy and rule of law in Ukraine and to fighting organized crime.

More problematic are confusing sentences such as “ever-closer convergence of positions on bilateral, regional and international issues of mutual interest, taking into account the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) of the European Union, including the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP)”. This not only makes for hard reading, it is also non-binding and therefore of little value. Ambiguous are references to the Ukraine’s “European ambitions” because enlargement is simply not on the agenda. Infuriating to those in The Netherlands who do not want to be dragged into enlargement by stealth are sentences like “contributing to the gradual economic integration and deepening of political association”. Some sentences are vague but create the impression of some sort of military commitment: “Promotion of respect for the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, inviolability of borders and independence”. The EU will not go to war with Russia over Ukraine. Finally, the Dutch translation of the association agreement includes an annoying translation mistake. It speaks of “institutional reoccupation” instead of “institutional reform” (in Dutch: “heroveringen” instead of “hervormingen” – possibly the result of autocorrection). Apparently, Dutch parliamentarians missed this crucial translation mistake while approving the agreement – or, more likely, the text was simply not read carefully.

The political part as it stands contains pompous jargon that, with the threat of referenda in The Netherlands, endangers an otherwise useful agreement. The EU has a long history of useless symbolic language. No one really knows what ‘ever closer union’ means but Cameron is prepared to hold an in-or-out referendum over this in the UK. Similarly, referendum triggers such as ‘constitution’, ‘EU hymn’, and ‘European flag’ in 2005 overestimated the support for European symbols.

Evidently no one should fear referenda but they have to be about real issues, not superfluous texts. Hence, from now on, EU negotiators have to produce worthwhile texts while steering clear of hollow ambitions. It is better to have trade liberalization than to see this association agreement being thrown out. Ensuring focused texts and preventing suggestive language is not always easy in an EU environment that thrives on compromises. As regards the Ukraine, East European countries are more open to enlargement suggestions than West European countries. From now on, Dutch negotiators will have to constantly explain that unclear texts can trigger referenda that may shoot down otherwise relevant policies and agreements. Negotiators from other EU member states have to understand that referenda in The Netherlands also affect them.

The lesson from the referendum organized by Geenpeil is therefore that all EU negotiators have to ensure that texts are clear and that inconsequential hints at deeper integration, centralization or enlargements are in nobody’s interest. Commission President Juncker and Commissioner Timmermans want the EU to be big on big things and small on small things. The current referendum underlines that the EU has to focus on those policies where it has added value. Referenda over pointless texts can be prevented, thus only leaving those on topics that deserve to be debated.

(1) Schout, A., J. Rood (eds) (2013) The Netherlands as an EU member state: a normal partner at last? Portland: Eleven International Publishing.


An earlier version appeared in Volkskrant, 13 October 2015 (Dutch).